Disentangling global and domain-level adaptive behavior trajectories among children with autism spectrum disorder

Cristan Farmer*, Audrey Thurm, Emma Condy, Eric Duku, Peter Szatmari, Teresa Bennett, Mayada Elsabbagh, Connor M. Kerns, Isabel M. Smith, Tracy Vaillancourt, Anat Zaidman-Zait, Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, Stelios Georgiades

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Heterogeneity in adaptive behavior abilities among people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is expressed not only as uneven levels of impairment across domains, but also in the developmental trajectories of adaptive skills. We studied the question of whether, after accounting for global adaptive behavior development, we find evidence of heterogeneity in the trajectories of specific domains of adaptive behavior. Methods: A sample of 504 children with ASD was obtained by combining data from two independent natural history studies conducted in North America. We used a factor of curves model to explain growth between 36 and 138 months in Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, Second Edition (VABS) age equivalents as a function of domain-specific and global growth processes. Results: The domain-specific trajectories in all three domains (Communication, Daily Living Skills, and Socialization) reflected impairment relative to age expectations as well as slower-than-expected growth with age, and the parameters of these trajectories were moderately-to-strongly correlated across domains. The global adaptive behavior trajectory had an initial (36–41 months of age) developmental level of about 22 age-equivalent months, and eventually slowed after initially increasing by about 6 months each year. The global trajectory accounted for the majority of variance in the domain-level processes; however, additional variance remained (14%–38%) in the domain-level intercepts, slopes, and quadratic processes. Conclusions: These results extend existing theoretical and empirical support for the hierarchical structure of adaptive behavior to include its development over time in clinical samples of children with ASD. A latent global trajectory may be sufficient to describe the growth of adaptive behavior in children with ASD; however, the remaining domain-specific variability after accounting for global adaptive behavior development allows for the possibility that differential effects of intervention on specific domains may be possible and detectable.


  • adaptive behavior
  • autism spectrum disorder
  • development
  • structural equation modeling


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